Algerian cartoonist, other political detainees released to rejoin protests

The Algerian government surprised lawyers and activists by suddenly releasing dozens of prisoners detained over protest activities.

al-monitor Algerian journalists demonstrate for press freedom during a protest against the country's ruling elite and rejecting the December presidential election in Algiers, Algeria, Nov. 15, 2019. The armband reads "Free journalists." Photo by REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina.

Jan 6, 2020

Algerian cartoonist Abdelhamid Amine, known as Nime, walked free less than a month into his prison sentence on the second day of 2020. He had been detained for his tongue-in-cheek drawings that had irked the authorities in the lead-up to the recent presidential election. 

Nime was among 180 to 200 others detained for political reasons since the beginning of the hirak, the mass protest movement that took to the streets Feb. 22 in opposition to the fifth mandate of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and boycotted the December poll

Nime was arrested Nov. 26 after protesters started reproducing his sketches on banners mocking the election. On one, army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah and interim President Abdelkader Bensalah place a golden slipper on Abdelmajid Tebboune, who won the election. On Dec. 11, Nime was given a one-year sentence, three months of which would be served in prison and nine months suspended.

In a surprise move last week, Nime and 75 other political detainees were released, according to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees. Some had completed their sentences but others were let out early, although their convictions and charges still stand. Among those liberated were Lakhdar Bouregaa, a veteran from the country’s war for independence, protesters who had waved the Berber flag, a 25-year-old activist known as “the poet of the hirak” and several members of the activist group Rassemblement Action Jeunesse. 

There had been no indication of the impending release. On the contrary, just two days earlier, the court had rejected lawyers' requests for the provisional release of their clients. Many of them were not even aware of the court session in which their release was ordered.

“[But] we were called and told that the judge was going to release them,” Mostefa Bouchechi, a human rights lawyer and a leading figure in the hirak movement, told Al-Monitor. In a single session, almost 40 detainees were released one by one and their trial dates were postponed over the next few months. 

The release of political detainees is one of the demands of the hirak and was cause for celebration. However, for many, the situation highlights the politicized nature of the Algerian judicial system. “The detainees were happy to sleep at home, to see their children, but we were not happy with the way they [the judges] treated the files,” El Hadi Lassouli, an activist with the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees, told Al-Monitor. “Our justice system functions with telephone calls. They were sentenced due to a telephone call and the were released due to a telephone call.” 

After taking office, Tebboune said that he wanted to open a dialogue with the hirak, which views the election result as illegitimate. In the weeks following the election, activists continued to be detained during the weekly Friday protests. Bouchechi reads the recent move as a sign that things are cooling down.

“It is difficult for the current president to do anything, to govern, if he doesn’t find a way to get on with the hirak,” he said. A number of high-profile activists still remain in prison such as Karim Tabbou, Samir Belarbi and Fodil Boumela, but many people hope they may be released this week, too. 

Some Algerians are cynical about the regime’s generosity. The mass liberation coincided with the announcement of the new cabinet, which the hirak decried as mere recycling of old regime figures. “When we see how the government was formed [Jan. 4], it was all the same, no one from civil society, no opposition parties. It is not an open government; they are all former ministers or state actors,” Khaled Drareni, journalist and founder of the Casbah Tribune, told Al-Monitor. “The main demand of the hirak is that they all go, and now they have all come back.” 

The recent death of Salah in late December may have also influenced the government's decision. Drareni added, “Some of the people were imprisoned on the direct order of Gaid Salah. I don't think this would have happened if he were around.”

Despite this apparent concession, Bouchechi considers it premature to speak about a dialogue without the fulfillment of other requirements, such as a free media space and freedom of association. “We are deprived of our rights and freedoms. We need to be able to dialogue between ourselves before the dialogue with the regime,” he said. 

The demand for a free press still stands, and the hirak's point of view still struggles to make it onto the airwaves of both public and private stations. Prior to the hirak, many of Bouteflika’s cronies headed businesses that maintained pressure on the media through economic means, such as the printing services or advertisement, said Ahmed Benchemsi, communications and advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. Now, he said, “Many of his cronies are in jail but what we have observed is that media hasn’t been freed since Bouteflika was taken down.” 

Mahrez Rabia, 35, lost his TV presenter job with Canal Algerie a month ago. His superiors said he had put on weight. However, he said that the decision came after a series of informal warnings from his bosses to “slow down” on his personal project, a documentary about the hirak. “If you speak to those in charge, they will say ‘we are the state’ [rather than] a public institution in service of the public,” Rabia told Al-Monitor. “They see themselves as working in the senate or parliament, or the police station.” 

For Drareni, the releases are a hollow victory as the main challenges still remain. “When we went out in February it wasn’t to release the detainees — there were no detainees,” he said. 

The following day was the 46th march of the hirak and the former detainees protested as they celebrated their freedom. War veteran Lakhdar Bourgaa said as he was released that “Algerians need to pursue their revolution” and confirmed that he would go to the Grande Poste, the square outside the post office in central Algiers where the hirak gathers every Friday. 

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